Last week, I told a friend I wanted to write about transgender issues, because it has become such a conflictual contemporary issue, especially in my own Roman Catholic Christian tradition. He immediately replied that it would be a waste of my time because, as he said: “That transgender nonsense is unnatural and immoral.”

Contemporary transgender issues do indeed raise questions about what is “natural” and “moral.” Determining contemporary moral values and behavior, I suggest, requires an historically conscious perspective, because human understanding evolves and develops over time. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science and archaic medical treatments like using leeches and bloodletting. Leech therapy was once recommended for diseases of the nervous system and eyes. Former U.S. president George Washington died on December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon, when doctors drained out 40% of his blood trying to cure his throat infection.

When people derive moral obligations from “nature,” they are actually deriving them from a very human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law,” “human nature,” and issues of human sexuality and transgender is that our understandings of what it means to be “natural” have changed, developed, continue to develop. Women, for example, were once considered “naturally” inferior to men. We are always learning. And there will always be new questions.

Changed understandings do not always come easily. Across the United States, today far-right anti-LGBTQ+ extremists have targeted transgender people and are pushing legislation to remove their rights. So far this year more than 550 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation have been introduced in U.S. states. More than 80 have now become law.

In January of this year, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon U.S.A.  issued an archdiocesan policy titled “A Catholic Response to Gender Identity Theory.” Like policies in other U.S. dioceses, the Portland Archdiocese mandates that all people be treated according to their sex as assigned at birth. It condemns any endorsement of gender identity theory or “any form of gender transition, whether social or medical.” The Portland policy describes gender affirming care as a “totalitarian program that only causes more suffering and lasting damage.”

At least 30 U.S. Catholic dioceses have now released policies about LGBTQ+ people in schools, with the Archdiocese of Portland being one of the latest. These policies reinforce a strict gender binary understanding, such as requiring the use of names and pronouns according to a person’s sex assigned at birth, rather than the person’s gender. Many Catholic leaders follow the old dictum, often attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, “hate the sin, love the sinner” in their approaches to LGBTQ+ people. They encourage kindness toward LGBTQ+ people but still condemn their actions as immoral and intrinsically disordered.

In March 2023, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued guidelines to stop Catholic hospitals from providing gender transition care. The 14-page document, titled “Moral Limits to the Technological Manipulation of the Human Body,” sets guidelines about changing a person’s gender, specifically with youth. The document says Catholic hospitals “must not perform interventions, whether surgical or chemical, that aim to transform the sexual characteristics of a human body into those of the opposite sex or take part in the development of such procedures.” Currently, the Catholic Health Association comprises more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in the United States. (It will be very interesting to see which candidate the U.S. bishops support in the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign. But that is a point for a future reflection.)

Nevertheless, this past August 2023 two Catholic colleges in Minnesota courageously announced that due to the “evolving understanding of gender and gender identity” they are welcoming transgender students. The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, say on their joint website that they support people who do not identify as binary, including “transgender, nonbinary, gender-fluid, and gender-nonconforming individuals.” The website announcement affirms that all LGBTQ+ people have a place in their academic institutions.

There are no doubts that transgender people have gained greater visibility in recent years. I can think immediately of celebrities like actress Laverne Cox, the former Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete Caitlyn Jenner, and the Canadian actor Elliot Page. They have all spoken very openly about their gender transitions. A very interesting book, in this regard is Transgender History by Susan Stryker. It provides a concise history of transgender people in the United States from the middle of the 19th century to the 2000s. Stryker is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona.

On March 31, 2023, the White House issued a proclamation recognizing Transgender Day of Visibility. President Joseph Biden stressed: “On Transgender Day of Visibility, we celebrate the strength, joy, and absolute courage of some of the bravest people I know. Transgender Americans deserve to be safe and supported in every community – but today, across our country, MAGA extremists are advancing hundreds of hateful and extreme state laws that target transgender kids and their families. No one should have to be brave just to be themselves.”

Transgender is an umbrella term describing people whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to what is typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender refers to the social roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for boys and men or girls and women. Gender influences the ways that people act, interact, and feel about themselves. While aspects of biological sex are similar across different cultures, aspects of gender are often quite different.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 5% of young adults in the United States say their gender is different from their sex assigned at birth. About a quarter of U.S. adults say they have a trans friend (27%), while 13% say they have a co-worker who is trans and 10% say they have a transgender family member.

Many transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling. It is extremely difficult, however, for teenagers. More than 50% of trans and non-binary youth in the United States considered suicide last year. For these individuals, significant problems are finding the social support necessary to freely express their gender identity and getting hormone therapy and sex-change medical procedures.

Transgender people are more common than one might think. According to a 2022 report from UCLA’s School of Law Williams Institute, 1.6 million people ages 13 years and up identify as transgender in the United States. This means that approximately 1.4% of the U.S. population is transgender.

The term “transgender” was coined in the 1960s but didn’t become widespread until the 1990s. Historically, transgender people have been documented in many indigenous, Western, and Eastern cultures as well as societies from antiquity up to and including the present day.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, best known as Elagabalus, who ruled from 218 to 222 CE, reportedly wore makeup and wigs, preferred to be called a lady and not a lord, and reportedly offered vast sums to any physician who could provide him with a vagina. Shunned and stigmatized by the Praetorian Guard, Elagabalus was assassinated, and his body was thrown into the Tiber River.

Nevertheless, transgender behavior existed in Rome before and after Elagabalus. Transgender practice was tolerated and even respected by the Roman populace when it was practiced by the male-born women priestesses of Cybele, known as the Gallae. 

In the Indian subcontinent hijra is the generic term for trans women and may include eunuchs and intersex people who live in communities. Going back to the thirteenth century, hijras are officially recognized as a third gender neither completely male nor female. Today in general hijras have been born male. Some hijras undergo an initiation rite into the hijra third gender community called nirvaan, which involves the removal of the male genitalia.

The United States Armed Forces have a long history of transgender service personnel. Albert Cashier served bravely in over 40 battles as a Union Army soldier in the U.S. Civil War (1861 – 1865). He was one of at least 250 transgender soldiers who, though assigned a female at birth, fought in the war as men. In more recent years, openly transgender people have served or sought to serve in the military. As of 2021, transgender individuals are expressly permitted to serve openly in the United States Armed Forces as their identified gender.

Transgender Christians in medieval hagiography? The book Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography by historians Alicia Spencer-hall (Queen Mary University of London) and Blake Gutt (University of Michigan) explains that from the fifth to the ninth century, a number of Christians considered “saintly men” across the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world, though assigned female at birth, chose to live out their adult lives as men in monasteries.  

There is no single explanation for why some people are transgender. The diversity of transgender expression and experiences argues against any simple explanation. Many experts believe that early experiences as well as experiences later in adolescence or adulthood may all contribute to the discovery of transgender identities. Transgender people may be naturally straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual, just as naturally non-transgender people can be. 

The historical Jesus did not directly discuss issues of sex and gender. Jesus did stress the fundamental moral principle of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That really covers ALL people.


18 thoughts on “Contemporary Transgender Issues

  1. Another well-considered article on a difficult topic, thanks, Jack. Your pieces always contribute to a more informed and tolerant society.

  2. Thank you for your defense of and compassion toward our transgender brothers and sisters. Showing the presence of transgender persons throughout history gave your readers the correct framework for understanding the current issue. Another excellent reflection on our “culture wars.”

  3. Your survey of the history and science of the issue reminds me of a point which was relentlessly drilled into me in Prof. Selling’s class: “The Human Person Adequately Considered!”… I am so heartened to see my own children in middle and high school develop wonderful friendships with people who identify as non-binary or who use “they/them” pronouns. While I have struggled at times to adjust to this new perspective on gender identity (as you say “Changed understandings do not always come easily”), to witness a new generation who are able to see a person’s humanity first and appearance second opens the heart wide. I like to think that Jesus humbly modeled “changed understandings” when he interacted with the Syro-Phoenician woman or Samaritans–even he had to adjust his perspective at times! Thank you for this reflection Jack.

  4. When I read your weekly posts, Jack, I feel like I am in a Leuven classroom with you up front, both delivering a well-prepared lecture, and then engaging your students in a guided discussion on the points made in the presentation. Sometimes I think, “Of all the sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest of these, ‘It might have been!'” Thanks so much for all you continue to share.

  5. Dear Jack,
    Thank you for this insightful, enlightening, and factually supported explanation of a truly complex issue. I vividly remember my mother telling me, in the early 1950s, well before I thought about the differences between boys and girls, about an American soldier who went to Denmark after WWII for the purpose of changing gender. (Google Christine Jorgensen) It seemed odd to me but I basically thought, “Who cares.” In seminary we were warned not to have “special friendships” but, again, I didn’t get the implications. When I finally learned that there were people who weren’t quite “normal,” it was obvious that they should be, if not shunned, at least avoided because….well, you know!! Only as an adult with “non-hetero” colleagues, friends, and classmates of my children who were lovely, kind, caring people did it really hit home: WHO CARES!!! Treat people as you want to be treated. We walk through life together sharing the same hopes, dreams, struggles, and goals. Does it really matter at all what our gender is? You, as always, have succinctly concluded with the appropriate summation: love ALL people as God loves us.
    Peace, dear friend.

  6. My dear Jack
    This was a very valuable commentary on transgender issues, in particular the eye-opening survey of the history of transgender cases, and calling out those who, like the diocese of Portland, would deny the reality of a person transitioning from one gender to another.

    But far more pernicious than those who deny transgender rights, are the activists who aggressively promote them at the expense of women’s rights. Examples include Stonewall, a pressure group which has captivated a number of government departments in the UK, forcing changes of language that seek to obliterate any references to femininity – e.g., “birthing parents” rather than “mothers” in maternity units; transgender athletes, fully developed biological males, competing in women’s sporting events; the double rapist now known as Isla Bryson confined in a woman’s prison until public outcry forced the authorities to send him/her to a male prison; the Harry Potter author JK Rowling who campaigns for women’s rights, branded a TERF by Oxfam; the philosopher Kathleen Stock hounded from her university post for seeking a balanced debate on transgender versus women’s rights.

    One of the tactics of the transgender activists in belittling the significance of biological sex, is to promote the idea that sex is something “assigned” at birth. Strictly speaking, this is the case: following the inspection of the external genitalia of a newborn baby, the baby’s sex is “assigned” in the sense that an official record is made of what has been observed. However the word “assign” also contains a strong suggestion of arbitrariness, and it is for this reason that transgender activists use the phrase “sex assigned at birth” rather than something more positive such as “the sex into which a person was born” or “biological sex”.

    I’m sure that you had no intention of aligning yourself with the activists that I’ve mentioned, but it nevertheless causes me some concern that no less than six times in the course of your post, you refer to a person’s sex as assigned at birth, while your only mention of biological sex is merely to distinguish it from gender.

    1. Many thanks Bernard but I think you misinterpret me…
      When I wrote “assigned at birth” I meant that it is “set at birth.” No I am not a transgender activist. I am an 80 years old man who has been married to a wonderful woman for 53 years.
      Many kind regards

  7. It would be fascinating to see what would happen if it were to be discovered that a surgically-transformed male had become pope – or even ordained.

  8. Many, many thanks, Jack. Three of our boys graduated from SJU. One of them is gay, and he had been encouraging the school to take a public stance on this.

    I have some hope for our world here. I think all it takes is one personal encounter with a young person who has this “condition” to help you understand that they are NOT choosing this. This is painful, confusing, frightening to them. I seriously doubt that any social conditioning could persuade anyone to adopt this as a “lifestyle.”

    The spectrum of human anatomy and psychology is just a lot broader than we thought. The same is true for many psychological “disorders.” They are simply part of the normal human condition for many of us. Think of it like height – which we know is highly influenced by our DNA. Very tall or very short people have some modest disadvantage – but they are NORMAL human beings. Gender, psychoses, personality traits, and thousands of other attributes have a wide range in us that is normal – perhaps outside the “norm” – but certainly normal.

    Many thanks. I continue to marvel at how you can generate these thoughtful and interesting pieces on such a regular basis. It is a gift to all of us.

    1. Many very sincere thanks for your poignant observations Carl. Human life is complex and we still know so little. But “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God with them.”

      About my weekly posts, very honestly I wonder how much longer I can continue. I keep scratching my head😉

  9. I hope your head-scratching does continue to produce these valuable posts Jack. But for however long or short a period you carry on doing them, you have already built up an amazing record of commentaries, and I find it both enjoyable and instructive, occasionally to take a random look into some of the older ones. I’ve just read the very first one, April 6 2010, and it is encouraging to see how very different the church is from the one that you wrote about them.

    I’m assuming, by the way, that the list of links below does represent the totality of your output as “Another Voice”, but if there are any even older it would be great to have access to them.


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